IN SESSION: Could legislative response to Mississippi’s healthcare crisis shift this year?

Published 7:06 pm Wednesday, January 10, 2024

NATCHEZ — Some feel the new state administration could also mean a change in the direction of the Mississippi healthcare crisis response.

Robert Johnson III, D-Natchez, who represents Mississippi’s 94th District inclusive of Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson counties, said it could mean further consideration of Medicaid expansion as one of the solutions to save hospitals on the brink of closing.

“It’s the best chance we’ve had since the Affordable Care Act was made available to us,” he said. “Our new house speaker has said he is committed to having very serious discussions about it.”

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New leaders

While the region has retained all of its House representatives, Adams County is among those with new Senate leaders after redistricting and election changes.

Sen. Albert Butler, D-Port Gibson, previously represented District 36 and ran unopposed for senator of District 37 during the Nov. 7, 2023, general election after defeating Shirly Sandifer in the primary with nearly 70 percent of the total votes.

Gary Brumfield was elected on Nov. 7, 2023, to the State Senate District 38 seat, defeating Kelvin Butler with 50 percent of the votes to Butler’s 39 percent.

District 38 has all of Wilkinson County and parts of Adams, Amite, Pike and Walthall counties in the southwestern corner of the state. Butler previously defeated Brumfield in a special election on Nov. 2, 2021, to fill the vacancy left by former Democratic Sen. Tammy Witherspoon as she resigned on June 30 and was sworn in the next day as Mayor of Magnolia.

Gov. Tate Reeves and previous Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn’s opposition to expansion has shut down any substantial debate regarding Medicaid expansion.

However, Jason White, a Republican who has now taken the helm from Gunn as Speaker of the House, has said Medicaid expansion will be up for “full discussion” this session as a probable solution to the state’s health care issues. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the state Senate, has said the same.

House minority leader Johnson, who has been outspoken on the issue, says it is not a partisan issue, but one that “affects the whole state.”

His thoughts on the topic differ from District 97 Rep. Sam Mims V, R-McComb, who represents Adams, Amite, Franklin and Pike counties and last year chaired Mississippi’s healthcare committee.

Reeves, the Medicaid director and new hospital CEOs from all around the state have instead been “looking at ways to increase reimbursements” that would send financial relief directly to hospitals.

“It’s roughly $700 million going to hospitals across the state approved this year and will have to be approved every year,” Mims said. “You will never get that type of infusion that many hospitals (will receive) in the coming days, not even if we had expanded Medicaid.”

Based on patient volume, Mims said up to $3.3 million in reimbursements would go to Merit Health Natchez this year, $17 million to Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center in McComb, and $66 million to Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg.

“That is going to solve a lot of problems for our rural hospitals,” Mims said.

Other priorities

As for other priorities leaders are eyeing this session, a less glorified but necessary discussion Johnson said is needed will be to allocate funds toward improvements to water, sewer and drainage systems as well as infrastructure, roads and bridges.

All are necessary to both “attract new industry” and “keep citizens feeling like they can come home.”

Johnson said he has been listening to Natchez and Adams County leaders about the city and county-wide drainage issues like those of Carthage Point and Morgantown roads.

“We have close to $2 billion in ARPA funds that can still be used for drainage, infrastructure, roads and bridges,” he said.

Both Johnson and Mims said they also look forward to having Mississippi’s ballot initiative process restored, which is a process to allow voters to amend Mississippi’s constitution on issues not addressed by the legislators.

Mississippi has not had a ballot initiative since voters overwhelmingly supported medical marijuana in 2021, but the state’s Supreme Court ruled it invalid.

Leaders at the time promised to quickly address the issues that stripped Mississippians of the ballot initiative right they’ve had for three decades on a legal technicality, but have failed to do so for the past two years.

“We (the house) passed a bill last year that died in the Senate,” Johnson said. “We need to have that process restored. … That’s yet another measure with bipartisan support.”

Mims said while there is mutual support for restoring the ballot initiative process, the disagreement between the House and Senate is how many signatures are required to push a measure onto a ballot.

“We believe it should be close to what it was in the past and others feel there should be an increase,” he said. Mims said he also would amend the language so that if there are issues with a ballot measure wants its passes, the state will be able to remedy the issues without another constitutional amendment put before voters.

For example, “With the medical marijuana bill, it stated only one agency involved and there was no way that only one state agency could administer it,” he said.

Johnson said he also aims to fortify Mississippi’s public employee retirement system to ensure that retired Mississippians can retain their PERS benefits. Mississippi is among few states considered to be in distress with an estimated unfunded liability of over $20.5 billion.

Mims boasted about how well Mississippi’s economy is doing.

“Our economy in Mississippi is doing very well,” he said, with the “lowest unemployment” Mississippi has seen in decades. The state has also maxed out its “rainy day account” at $750 million.

With leaders eyeing local issues such as drainage, Mims said he is also mindful of what has been going on in Washington, D.C., and how inflation has and will impact the state.

“Our revenue continues to exceed expectations every month,” he said. “People are spending more money and making more money here in Mississippi than ever. … However, high inflation and interest rates are at a level not good for us,” he said. “While we are doing well here in Mississippi, what happens in Washington can affect our economy and so we’re going to have to craft a very conservative budget that makes sense.”